In the first episode, host Kirsty Adams, together with guests from SolarAid, John Keane (CEO), Richard Turner (Director of Fundraising) and Brave Mhonie, (General Manager, Malawi), explores how setting big ambitions and daring to fail can inspire, elevate and take projects in new unexpected directions.
John Keane pioneered solar projects in Africa, focusing on developing energy solutions for low income households after living in rural Tanzania as a volunteer in 2000. Since helping SolarAid set up in 2006 he has held many positions in the organisations and has been SolarAid CEO since 2017. John wrote the sector defining book about the growing Pico-Solar sector in 2012 and has played an instrumental role in helping develop the solar sector across Africa. He is currently based in Zambia.
Brave Mhonie joined SolarAid’s social enterprise SunnyMoney in 2008. Starting out as a field officer he played an instrumental role in setting up the import of solar products to Malawi and launching the first schools programmes in the country. As the current General Manager he is leading the team in developing innovative business models to accelerate sustainable energy access in rural areas. Brave is seen delivering talks around the world on last mile energy access and is a board member of the Renewable Energy Industry Association (REIAMA) in Malawi.
Richard Turner, who worked as Chief Fundraiser at SolarAid from 2011 to 2016 returned as Director of Fundraising in 2021. With over 30 years of experience as a Fundraiser at Oxfam, Farm-Africa, FFI and ActionAid UK he is a well known name in the UK Fundraising sector. Richard has been delivering fundraising training for charities around the world, inspiring organisations to turn supporters into advocates by offering a great experience, by learning from failure, and by telling a great story.
Kirsty Adams: Hello and welcome to the Permission to Fail podcast, Powered by SolarAid. I’m your host, Kirsty Adams. To embrace failure in the non-profit sector. What does that look like? How does it even work? And can embracing failure help tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues? This episode is about ambition, failure and success. SolarAid is an international development charity which, through distributing solar lights to rural communities, is tackling poverty and climate change in sub-Saharan Africa. And it started back in 2007. The current CEO is John Keane, one of the guys you’ll hear from today. John’s been involved from the start.
John Keane: There’s more solar lights now being used across the continent than ever before and the trajectory is good.
Kirsty Adams: Other guests this episode include Brave Mhonie, Solar Aid’s general manager in Malawi.
Brave Mhonie: What we learned from there was the power of working together with the community.
Kirsty Adams: And Richard Turner, director of fundraising, SolarAid.
Richard Turner: It was a disaster. People hated it. What Solar Aid did then is it went on a hunt around the world to find the best solar lights that were being produced and bring them to Africa.
Kirsty Adams: Through a six part series, SolarAid will share its story as they believe embracing failure can lead to success. This story belongs to John, to his colleagues on the ground and the communities which now use clean, renewable lights to read in the evenings or cook their families a meal after dark. Before I tell you anything else, I want you to hear from John about an important moment for SolarAid.
John Keane: The first thing that SolarAid achieved, it really became a pioneer of small solar solutions. So what I mean by that is for decades, there’s been large solar panels that are put onto schools or health facilities or solar farms, which are typically used to be quite expensive. Obviously that’s changed these days. Solar prices are going down, but solar panels were typically large and expensive and too expensive for the poorest households to afford. And so what we started to do, we pioneered small pico solar, which when we started, we were actually using a glass cutter to cut up large solar panels and turn them into small solar panels. Just that very concept was new. And those small solar panels could provide small amounts of power to power radios or light homes. And they were more affordable because they were small. And so the first thing that solar really achieved was actually recognizing that there was a huge potential for small solar solutions in rural Africa.
Kirsty Adams: Nearly 600 million people live without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. John tells me it’s SolarAid’s mission to change that. They’ve actually already distributed 2.3 million solar lights, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. One light provides a child with 1006 hours of extra study time because they can now study by safe light after the sun has set. And yes, they are a charity, but they do charity differently in country. They work through SunnyMoney, which is a social enterprise they own. They do trade, not aid. Communications director at SolarAid, Sofia Ollvid, explains it really well in a voice note, which she sent to me.
Sofia Ollvid: We believe in sort of a business based approach to aid for sustainability of our projects, but also because we believe that, you know, instead of giving solar lights away, which might solve things in a very short term by creating local markets and by keeping local solar entrepreneurs, we’re able to kick start, you know, a local economy instead of having beneficiaries, we have customers. So they have, you know, the rights that a normal customer would have in terms of warranties and stuff like that for solar lights.
Kirsty Adams: The story starts with one rather big and crazy ambition. John tells me that it’s important for any organization, especially a charity, to know what success looks like and to know when they are achieving success. So here’s John again to talk about how his team reached its big, hairy, audacious goal or BHAG for short.
John Keane: That was basically how do you set a really ambitious mission that is almost impossible but is not, crucially, impossible to achieve? And then it gets you thinking how do you achieve that? Now, the other important ingredient to setting up a very ambitious goal, as was to eradicate the kerosene light from Africa, was we made it time bound so it wasn’t okay, we want to eradicate kerosene lights from the continent in 100 years because that doesn’t inspire urgency and the need for creative innovation and action. What we wanted to do was look to a point in time in the future, and so we gave ourselves nine years to achieve it, basically. So our BHAG was to eradicate the kerosene light from Africa by 2020. Now you’ll notice it’s 2023. But the point being is that basically enabled us to know if we were being successful or to and to understand how much more we needed to do. It inspired a lot of creativity and determination and innovation within the organization. And even though we set up a social enterprise called Sunny Money, even though Sunny Money became the largest distributor of solar lights in Africa. I think it was in 2012, 2013, and that was cause for celebration and cause to be proud within the context of our BHAG, you know, selling 1.5 million lights in a two year period was a drop in the ocean. And so, you know, we could have sat back and patted ourselves on the back saying, “hey, we’re succeeding.” But, we knew that we were on a pathway to success, but we were nowhere near to achieving it. And actually the clock was ticking and so much more needed to be done.
John Keane: And actually so then we realized we cannot achieve this goal ourselves. We have to do it in partnership and we have to think again as to how we achieve this goal. And so it inspired innovation, it inspired creativity, but it also inspired a lot of, okay, this is not enough. So you could say it’s quite a depressing thing because you’re like, you’re really doing great stuff. You think you’re kind of really kind of having a great impact and you are. But because you’ve sent this almost impossible goal, it’s never quite enough. So there is a flip side to it. It can actually lead to the dangers of becoming too ambitious, putting yourself into too much pressure. But if you manage it correctly, I think a BHAG can inspire teams, it can inspire great change. And ultimately, if you do achieve it or if you get close to achieving it, then it really helps you maximize the impact you’re having. And I’ll just say the last thing it is 2023. Our BHAG when we set it in 2011, I believe was by 2020. And yes, kerosene lights, there are still kerosene lights used in the continent, but they are on the way out. They’re less common in many countries. There’s more solar lights now being used across the continent than ever before, and the trajectory is good. And if we hadn’t set that BHAG, I guess the question would be would we have achieved as much as we and the wider sector has achieved? And that’s something people can debate, but without the BHAG we probably wouldn’t have been quite as ambitious.
Kirsty Adams: I imagine it encourages creativity within the team to come up with different ideas.
John Keane: It absolutely did. And no, I mean our CEO, our former CEO Steve Andrews at the time and I was the managing director of SunnyMoney, we would have incredibly creative conversations both together and with the teams. And you were always looking for ways in which to improve and actually taking risks. And I think that’s obviously quite relevant to the conversation that we’re having. We were driven by a social mission, and selling a million lights was not enough, and we knew that we needed to test and trial and innovate and do many more things that may or may not work in order to have a chance of progressing towards the mission.
Kirsty Adams: So really focusing on the kerosene lamp paid off for John and the team. And as you’ll hear from Richard in just a moment, it helped to create a narrative which led to some essential funding.
Richard Turner: We focused on that without solar lights, huge numbers of households resort to using kerosene lamps. And kerosene lamps are these sort of almost like a tin can with a hole in it full of kerosene or petrol or paraffin that is lit and providing a solar light would replace it. So we set ourselves an audacious goal to eradicate the kerosene lamp by the end of the decade. But it suddenly harnessed and it gave us a fantastic narrative and a story to tell. And I noticed the difference instantly. I recall meeting a supporter. This is what we would call a major supporter, someone who was willing to give significant funds, but he hadn’t supported us for a long time. It was my first meeting. We were meeting in a cafe in London and I shared with him our new goal, and I also put on the table a kerosene lamp and he immediately responded and said, “You know, that’s fantastic. Now I get what you’re up to.” And he instantly committed to give a very significant sum, a sort of, you know, we’re talking 50,000 or upwards to support SolarAid as a result of that. And so it had an instant impact. It just gave a clarity about what we were about. Instead of doing lots of different different initiatives, there was a focus that all added up to one thing.
Brave Mhonie: I am Brave Mhonie. I am the general manager of SunnyMoney and Solaraid in Malawi. Personally, I think it is very important to embrace failure as an organization. From my experience, I have learnt that failure inspires creativity. The pain of going through that process, of failing to achieve what you intended to achieve. That process is critical. To look into some of the aspects of your plan that were not taken into consideration, which have actually exposed those loopholes leading to failure. We have so many examples in Malawi where we failed to attain our desired goals, but by going through and analysing the whole process, we also learnt a lot which inspired the depth and the magnitude of creativity. For example, when we started operating, we were inspired to catalyse market in the remotest areas and reaching the most low income customer that might exist in the areas where we are operating. And our goal was 2020 to achieve this. But it never happened because we did not truly understand the level of a problem that we are trying to deal with. We do not fully understand the power of working together with the community in creating these solutions. We’re kind of trying to bring the solution that we thought would work in these areas that we targeted to operate.
Brave Mhonie: We failed miserably. We failed. And up to now, we still have a lot of people who are not reached with any form of clean, renewable energy. But what we learned from there was the power of working together with the community. The beauty of developing business models, putting the community itself at the center stage of the business model, and also the same community who are our targeted customers, contributing to the whole structure and design of the business model. When we started taking this step of putting the into the community itself at the center stage of developing the business models, we have noticed a huge change in terms of the acceptance of the models, in terms of the depth and also in terms of the ability to reach every customer. And this has given us hope that if we continue doing this way, we will be able to demonstrate that attainment of SDG seven is actually possible. So it is really, really important to embrace failure and also use it to understand the gaps, the areas did not consider in the initial planning of your activities and then accept that you learn more by failing and use it to inspire that creativity.
Kirsty Adams: It’s interesting what Brave says there about putting the community itself at the heart of the business model. From his words, there’s no doubt that this approach works, that crazy ambitions and embracing failure works or that it has worked for SolarAid. His comments really frame this next part. Let’s hear from John about his favourite fail.
John Keane: I think I’ve got two, but I think the one I would probably choose is I think going back to the student lights campaign days where we okay, the student lights campaign came out of us sitting down with schools and a solar supplier and with these solar study lights and thinking, how do we get these into the hands of children in Tanzania? And we we did this on an island called Mafia Island, and we would visit every single school. And we saw a huge demand for solar lights. This is at a time when maybe 10 to 50 solar lights were being sold every week. And in four days, I think it was something like 1500 lights were sold. Now, that sounds like success. And it was we were like, “That is amazing.” Our new CEO at the time looked at me and he said, “Is this normal?” And I was like, “No, this isn’t normal. This is incredible.” And so what we did, we thought, well, let’s replicate this on the mainland. And so we did. We started replicating on the mainland, and I joined the sales teams and the field teams. And these days were long and grueling. Tanzania is a large country. The schools are nowhere near each other. And you would visit maybe 2 to 3 schools a day. And yes, they were distributing large volumes of lights, but it was totally unsustainable. And my first bit of feedback was bring a flask of tea with you. But we realized that it would take us forever to reach every school and every community and it would be extremely expensive.
John Keane: And so that in itself was okay, we’re proving something here. We’re proving that there’s a huge demand, but we’re also proving that there’s a huge cost in terms of time and expense and blood, sweat and toil basically to achieve this. And so we cannot replicate this across the country or indeed the continent. And so that could have been the end of it. We could have just said, this is too hard, too expensive. But we sat down and had a meeting in Arusha with the field teams, and we just started discussing, okay, what’s good here is that there’s there’s a big demand. And when we’re there, there’s a huge uptake. But what’s not working is the distance and the expense and the time. And it’ll take us forever. And again, this is the BHAG in motion you’re thinking we won’t be able to do this by 2020 across the continent. There’s no way it’s going to be too expensive and too long. But we realized that, well, actually we were working with an educational network and the key there is network. And that network has a system of teachers coming together, occasionally to be trained. And so we realized, oh, what if the schools come to us? And so instead of us going to thousands of schools, what if we had 50, 100 schools come to centralized meetings to us and we found a way to distribute through those meetings? And that actually led to the huge success, but it came out of something really not working very well.
Kirsty Adams: So how were you transporting them before? Just on trucks like small transit vans?
John Keane: Yeah, yeah, they were minivans and trucks. And so instead of going to, say, three schools a day and reaching, you know, few hundred children, what you could do is go to a centralized point still in a rural area and you get between 10 and 50 schools, headteachers coming in, you’d have a meeting together, explain what the whole thing was about. And then you’d have a second meeting a few weeks later once they understood and they would do the presentations to the schools, not us, which is much better because it would be less disruptive than us just rocking up at a school and saying, “Hey, here’s solar lights that will improve your day.” And then, you know, teachers saying, “Wow, we’re delivering a class.” Instead, they could do it within their own timeframe. And then we would just go back and have those second centralized meetings. And it was a lot cheaper to pay for teachers to come to a centralized meeting than for us to go to every school. And typically teachers would come in either by foot if it was close by bicycle motorbikes, which are become increasingly common in much of sub-Saharan Africa these days. And of course, sometimes, you know, they might get a lift on a bus or a car. But it was very it was it was clear that this was something that was going to transform how quickly you could create demand for solar lights and and essentially then help set up a marketplace. It’s hard to set up a marketplace if there’s not an obvious market. So you could train an agent or an entrepreneur to set up in a rural area, but then they need a big marketing budget. And so this was essentially a marketing tool that also distributed solar lights, created demand. And then we had entrepreneurs and agents saying, “Hey, I’d like to supply these on an ongoing basis within these communities.” And so that was that was the model.
Kirsty Adams: And the headteachers were essentially that last mile.
John Keane: Yeah, the headteacher, and that’s it, right? Not not every village has a school, but every group of villages will have a school. And so generally I am generalizing, but across most of the rural areas I’ve been across the continent, which is quite a lot, there will be a local primary school where the children will go and it’s sort of often the heart of the community together with a church or mosque.
Kirsty Adams: John and his team found a successful distribution model after trialling an unsuccessful distribution model and by communicating successfully with the teachers at the heart of the communities. Now it’s Richard’s turn to talk about failure and the positive results. His favorite fail led to.
Richard Turner: The one I’m most proud of. I think it’s the story I was told when I first joined SolarAid. And usually when you join an organisation, you’d think you’d be told a story of success. And yet I was told a story of failure. And I think that’s why it ranks in that word you asked about, which you’re most proud of. And it was about SolarAid first solar light that it created. And it was a solar light that was put inside a hurricane lamp. I’ve got one here. The hurricane lamp is the sort of thing Indiana Jones carries around in his movies. And if you can imagine, instead of a flame, you’ve got a fitting which fits a solar light. And we thought this was a genius idea because people had hurricane lamps and they could replace and fit this new found solar light. So we took it out to East Africa. And this is before I joined. And it was a disaster. People hated it because people didn’t want a solar light inside a hurricane lamp because this, you know, is the symbol of poverty for so many. They wanted a light bulb. And it was really valuable lesson because what SolarAid did then is it went on a hunt around the world to find the best solar lights that were being produced and bring them to Africa. And it just changed our strategic direction all from failing. And I really loved the idea that it was a story of failure that was almost celebrated and led us to go into a different direction. And it’s said to me a lot about this organization that I was about to join. It wasn’t just part of the programmatic side. I was hoping that it would also allow me a bit of permission to fail when it came to the fundraising, which I was going to be leading on.
Kirsty Adams: So did it surprise you when they took that approach?
Richard Turner: Yes, because so many organizations and I’ve you know, I’ve been in the voluntary sector all my career will brush failure under the carpet. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, even harder to sort of celebrate and champion and build into your ongoing narrative. And yet I’ve realized that it’s really key and fundamental to almost the DNA of the organization and the culture that we create. So, but I’m coming here. This was like, oh, this is the place that I want to be. And so, yeah, I think it was a really it was a really important anecdote that was shared with me, you know, in those in that first week of joining SolarAid.
Kirsty Adams: There’s something I’ve been eager to ask John since I first started talking to SolarAid about this podcast. I get that SolarAid has permission to fail. But what I want to know is, does that apply to the people on the ground, the people in those last miles? Does it filter down to them?
John Keane: We don’t want to set people up to fail. We want to kind of fail ourselves. So what we are all about, I suppose, is de-risking things. So, for example, when we worked with headteachers across Tanzania, yes, we worked, I suppose you could say with some guinea pigs because we were trialling something, but we would never scale something that isn’t really working. So for example, if we worked with headteachers, if we work with entrepreneurs and helping people set up energy businesses, yes, invariably there is some learning along the way. But typically if we’re looking to replicate something and share best practice, we’ve already done the hard work of learning what works well and what doesn’t work well. And so actually we encourage a lot of cross sharing in between solar agents, headteachers and also the teams that we work with and also partners in different countries. It’s all about sharing knowledge so that we don’t all have to recreate the wheel. So yes, we are all about taking risks, doing things that maybe others, certainly companies wouldn’t do. They wouldn’t put investment into something which they think is too risky. So yes, we do that, but then we don’t want to transfer that level of risk onto an entrepreneur in, say, rural, rural Zambia and say, hey, give this a go. You might lose money. So I think there’s a time and place to fail. There’s a time and place to take the risks, but it has to be with a purpose. And usually it’s to learn, see what works, what doesn’t. And then you you share both of those, learn all those learnings with what works, what doesn’t, so that people can have greater chance of success.
Kirsty Adams: As John says, there’s a time and a place to fail. The business model embraces risk, yes, but it doesn’t transfer that onto the entrepreneurs. It feels important to talk a little bit more about the model and to reflect on it, which Richard is about to do. If you work for an organization which is reconsidering its approach, perhaps you’re a charity or a third sector organization or any business actually, then we hope sharing this story will support you in your next steps.
Richard Turner: Yeah, and core to SolarAid’s approach is to sell solar lights, and I think that’s because we were founded by a social entrepreneur, you know, right from the beginning, let’s not be an aid agency or a classic charity that hands out lights and sometimes that surprises people. But I think when our supporters realize that, they realize that that’s more sustainable. And you realize that when someone buys a light that gives them power, they’re the customer. They have a right if that light is faulty or breaks and it also spreads spread far quicker. So for all those reasons, that’s why we’ve really leaned into that as, as our model right from the outset. But it’s not easy. If it was easy, someone else would have already done this. I think the business model is really, really important because we would need to be a vast charity or NGO to to distribute solar lights as hand outs. And and I think it would undermine the market. Ironically, it might even slow things down. Whereas if we can create mini businesses, if we can create a market where people buy solar lights that will thrive, you know, that’s that’s sustainable and it will move really fast. So that’s the area we’ve tried to specialize in is, is it’s not just solar, it’s about the business of solar and how to activate that in places that are going to benefit far more than anywhere else in the world.
Kirsty Adams: Failure in the non-profit sector, taking on risk has led to some incredible results for SolarAid. A crazy ambition to eradicate the kerosene lamp led to more funding and to less kerosene lamps. And, as Brave explained, putting the community at the heart of the organization made it a much more powerful approach. There is still so much more to this story in the upcoming episodes Me, You and more voices from SolarAid community will explore learnings from people on the ground. We’ll look at funding with permission to fail and moving into new territories. If you want to learn more about Solar Aid, please visit www.solar-aid.org. You’ll find the link in the show notes. Goodbye for now.